It’s clean-up time in our vegetable garden. An unusually warm autumn has meant that we are still harvesting quite a few vegetables, but any day now the first frost will put an end to such treats and we’ll be saying good bye to our late season tomatoes and peppers. Then it will be time to put most of the garden to bed for the winter.
I say “most of the garden” because there are some vegetables that thrive even in our icy, cold east-coast winters. We planted kale and collards in the heat of August and they are now thriving and hardy enough to withstand the frost. In fact their taste improves once they’ve been exposed to some frost and we’ll be dusting snow off them and making kale chips all winter. Carrots too can be planted in September, covered with straw and left to their own devices to be picked in time for holiday feasts. A late spinach crop can withstand some frost too and is a lovely winter treat.
There are some vegetables that need to be planted now in order to be ready for next year and garlic falls into this category. We’ll be spending our weekend planting dozens of garlic bulbs, which we’ll cover with straw and forget about until the spring, when it will be a huge pleasure to see their green shoots. These shoots form scapes which we love to chop into our morning eggs and soon enough we’ll be harvesting enough garlic to last us (and our friends) all year.
Outside of the vegetable garden it is also a good time to plant lots of daffodils and tulips ready for next spring. In our house we usually follow the old adage “the more the merrier” when it comes to bulbs, even though planting them is back-breaking work. The pay-off for all that hard work comes in the spring, when they emerge bringing swathes of color to the garden.
“First pull up all the annual plants that have died and toss them on the compost heap. This helps prevent disease and eradicates pests.”
Many of the October garden chores are frankly a bit boring and it’s tempting to skip them, but some hard work now will pay dividends in the spring. So it’s time to organize a big old clean up. First pull up all the annual plants that have died and toss them on the compost heap. This helps prevent disease and eradicates pests. Some of our annuals are still limping along, however, and as long as we’re still able to harvest a few tomatoes and peppers we like to keep going. But as soon as a frost has put an end to the late season harvest we’ll be clearing out the vegetable beds and preparing them for next season.
How do we prepare them? We plant what’s called a cover crop. This is a crop that we’re not going to harvest. It’s there to prevent soil erosion and to act as “green manure” to enrich the soil over the winter. It also prevents weeds from forming so it’s doing double duty. Come the spring we’ll kill the cover crop. That’s right we kill it! We catch the cover crop just before it’s about to seed and cut it back with a weed trimmer, wait a week for the stems to die down and then dig the crop into the soil. All this needs to be done 2 – 3 weeks before planting vegetables so that the crop decomposes properly and enriches the soil.
You have some choices when it comes to picking a cover crop. Legumes work well because they put more nitrogen back into the soil. However, we always manage to leave this task a little late and by the time we get to it the best option in our climate is Winter Rye. Cornell University has an excellent fact sheet about picking a cover crop which you can find here.
If you’re not going to plant a cover crop it’s still a good time to enrich your soil by adding compost or manure and then coving the soil with straw to prevent the nutrients from leeching out.
And that’s it! It’s time to say goodbye to most of your vegetable garden until the spring but by following these guidelines you’ll have put it to bed properly and made your job much easier next year when it’s time to wake your vegetable garden up again.